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Greenwashing is a marketing technique used to portray a green image of a product by conveying a false impression or providing misleading information, showcasing the product as environmentally friendly. Or in other words, greenwashing can be defined as the marketing strategy aimed at brainwashing consumers into thinking that a particular product/company is green (i.e. environment friendly), which is exactly how the term itself was derived (as a union of the words green and brainwashing).
With more people becoming aware of environmental concerns, there is a rapid boom in the green product market. Various studies have shown that people are not only looking for environment-friendly alternatives but are willing to pay up to 5% more for environment-friendly products. As per a 2015 poll conducted by Nielsen Media Research, 66% of global consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally sustainable products. The percentage was even higher in younger people, as the poll shows that 72% of millennials will readily pay more for green products.
Every major industry player has realized that today consumers are more likely to buy the products that they believe are green while investors are more likely to invest in firms that they perceive as socially responsible. As a result today, every company wants to portray itself as environmentally friendly, and socially responsible in short every firm wants to be labeled as green, irrespective of whether they are actually green or not. And this is exactly what greenwashing is.
Examples of Greenwashing
The first case of greenwashing was back in 1986, when environmentalist Jay Westerveld coined the term in the context of the “Save the Towel” moment by various hotels, making that the first case of greenwashing. In save the towel moment, many hotels were asking their customer to re-use the towels to save water, while all they were looking to do was cut down on their laundry bill.
Two other very famous examples of that time were Chevron (the 1980s) and DuPont (1991), both of the energy giants invested heavily in various advertising campaigns showing their employees saving wildlife and that their companies are dedicated to saving the environment while the truth was that Chevron was spilling oil in wildlife and actively violating both Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act. On the other hand, DuPont emerges as the largest polluter that year. The chevron campaign was so successful that many institutes like Harvard Business School started teaching them as a case study.
In recent time, many big brands are facing accusations or trials of greenwashing, for example, Starbucks recently switched to straw-less lids which ironically contains more quantity of plastic (although the new lids are supposed to be recycled) as compared to the previous combination of straw + lid. Other brands that are being accused include E-vehicles and Hydrogen vehicles as their batteries LCAs are estimated to cause more carbon emissions than the offsets,
IKEA (for their furniture buy-Back programs), Nike (for their recycled shoes), many fashion brands for their recycled fibers, etc.
Why is Greenwashing an anti-sustainable practice?
Many can argue that “greenwashing is just another marketing strategy, a way to lure customers, so why is it bad?” technically, most of the big PR firms do it in a way that they don’t break any law, or legally cheat anyone than what makes it so evil?
The answer is that; it has big negative impacts on the overall sustainability efforts of others. Even if we keep aside the fact that “most of these companies spend millions of dollars (even billions in some cases) in running those greenwashing campaigns, which they could have used to become environment friendly”, then also, they have huge negative impacts on others.
Due to greenwashing, many people who want to switch to sustainable products end up using non-sustainable products unknowingly loss of costumer for sustainable products. By misleading consumers of environment-conscious consumers into using their products these companies continue to cause the same harm to the environment as well as play with the trust of these people. Greenwashing also leads to green skepticism amongst the consumer, making them lose trust in the entire concept of green products altogether. As per many recent studies, green skepticism is rapidly gaining momentum worldwide thanks to the increased greenwashing practices.
Greenwashing vs actual green product
While there are many companies out there today, advertising to be green, not all are practicing greenwashing. Many of these products are genuinely environmentally friendly, so how can one identify/ differentiate between a genuine green product and one being greenwashed?
The first thing that anyone needs to understand is that greenwashing is all about misleading consumers and tricking them, and to do that most companies invest massively into PR and marketing focused on rebranding, renaming, and repackaging their products. Keeping this concept in mind, TerraChoice conducted a study and come up with 7 sins of greenwashing,
1. The sin of the Hidden Trade-off, committed by suggesting a product is “green” based on an unreasonably narrow set of attributes without attention to other important environmental issues.
2. The Sin of No Proof, is committed by an environmental claim that cannot be substantiated by easily accessible supporting information or by a reliable third-party certification.
3. The sin of Vagueness committed by every claim that is so poorly defined or broad that its real meaning is likely to be misunderstood by the consumer.
4. The sin of Worshiping False Labels is committed when a claim, communicated either through words or images, gives the impression of a third-party endorsement where no such endorsement exists.
5. The sin of Irrelevance, committed by making an environmental claim that may be truthful but which is unimportant or unhelpful for consumers seeking environmentally preferable products.
6. The Sin of Lesser of Two Evils, is committed by claims that may be true within the product category, but that risk distracting consumers from the greater environmental impact of the category as a whole.
7. The sin of Fibbing, the least frequent Sin, is committed by making environmental claims that are simply false
That being said, most people don’t have the required knowledge to spot these 7sins, so how can they save themselves from being greenwashed? the answer to that is as simple as these 4 points
- Look for proof/ certification: Greenwashing is all about making claims but they rarely have any proof in form of data or certificates to back those claims. So while searching for alternatives and looking for a green product, look for proof. Most genuine product will support their claims via proper scientific data, or green certificates from proper institutions.
- Look for details: Many companies tend to just claim that their new products or new process are eco-friendly but they never go into details. Products that use such vague descriptions are often just making false claims.
- Ignore False Certification: Many big companies tend to make various false claims regarding the sustainability of their products and tend to back them up by using false certification or false labels. They tend to provide 3rd party certification from the institute that either has no credibility or in some cases is completely made up. A consumer can easily check these labels or certifications by doing a quick web search regarding that certification.
- Remember “Not everything that’s colored green is green”: the most common trick used for greenwashing is simply to incorporate the color green in the packaging or logo of the product or brand name. in general people tend to perceive the product that has “green” incorporated into its packaging or name as being eco-friendly. By avoiding that assumption, one can save oneself from being greenwashed.
By keeping these four points in mind while looking for a product, consumers/ investors can effectively safeguard themselves from being greenwashed and help a safe environment by using the right products.